Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » April
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At this point—well into the old age of Rebecca Black’s video “Friday” as an internet meme—it seems simply cruel to pile on for any of the obvious reasons. Its chief crime against any reasonable listener’s ears is simple and obvious: despite being a manufactured-for-the-charts single, it lacks anything resembling a melody, and repeated exposure (which you’ve no doubt already experienced) will fail utterly to lodge it in your brain. It’s one thing to dress up a 13-year-old girl and push her as a pop superstar; it’s entirely another to do it and have no idea what constitutes a great pop song.  And never mind the completely ludicrous rap verse and the yawningly mundane video.

In fact, let’s leave aside all concerns that have to do with Rebecca Black herself because she’s as much a victim here as any of us. We’re all the victims of Clarence Jay and Patrice Wilson (who supplies the obligatory yet superfluous rap in the song), the lazy, awful songwriters at Ark Music Factory. And here’s why: From a lyrical perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a pop song with fluffy or inconsequential lyrics. It happens every day. But what “Friday” lacks is, in a word, stakes. At least, that’s what we call them in fiction and, in my experience as both an editorial board member and now assistant fiction editor of a literary journal, I can tell you a lack of stakes seems to be what sinks most short stories.

Narrative thrives on tension, and the bulk of unpublished stories hoping to make it into journals simply lack it because there’s either nothing at stake or whatever is at stake is not sufficient to carry the weight of the story. There are perfectly wonderful pieces that lack tension, but these are usually vignettes or character sketches. Rarely do they rise to the level of real storytelling. George Saunders, in an essay about Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School,” likened the process of guiding the reader through a story to one of those toy racetracks you race Matchbox cars on, the ones with the little garages that catapult the car faster every time it goes through. “A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations,” he writes. “The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story … if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the end of the story.” Boiling it down to its finest essence, Saunders hits upon what really matters to pop: “[T]he pattern is just an excuse for the real work of the story, which is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts.” What is a good pop song if not a series of pleasure-bursts?

Pop songs, though, don’t necessarily require an ever-rising narrative to keep us engaged, although there are many that do. A good example is “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. There’s scene setting (“Six a.m., day after Christmas / I throw some clothes on in the dark / smell of cold / car seat is freezing”), initial tension (“Her mom and dad went down to Charlotte / they’re not home to find us out”), plot development that increases tension (“They call her name at 7:30 / I pace around the parking lot / Then I walk down to buy her flowers / and sell some gifts that I got”), climax (“They told me, ‘Son it’s time / to tell the truth,’ / and she broke down / and I broke down”) and resolution (“She’s alone / I’m alone / Now I know it”). There’s also an impressive amount of restraint, with nothing directly tying the story of the song to what’s really happening: an abortion. This kind of elliptical, allusion-based songwriting has worked for other songs as well (“Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, for example). In many ways, “Brick” compares favorably with one of the most revered short stories of all time, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, another story of abortion.

But “Brick” is a real work of songcraft in the singer/songwriter tradition, not a pop jam. For a radio ready pop hit, it’s often enough to imply a story or even sketch a situation and then rely on the push-pull of the verse/chorus to engage the listener. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson (well, really by Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald, but you know what I mean*) also begins by setting the scene and establishing tension: “Here’s the thing: we started out friends / it was cool but it was all pretend.” Right there, in the first two lines of the song, we know that something has gone wrong with this relationship and we’re being told it as a story. The casualness of that “it was cool” and how it’s juxtaposed against the earned knowledge of the fakeness of the relationship raises the stakes immediately. The tension (which is in this case both lyrical and musical) is required for the chorus to explode the way it does and bam: you’ve got a pop gem.

Short stories thrive on this stuff, on the ways that subtle linguistic choices can establish an unstable situation. Take the first line of Miranda July’s short story, “The Swim Team”: “This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend.” Again, as in the Clarkson song, the telling itself is made to be part of the story, and we can already see that this story is going to reveal something secret. It also establishes that the story is being addressed to an ex. Boom: tension.

Or for a slightly different way to establish tension, consider the opening of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”: “Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.”

Despite the relative mundanity of the situation, Wolff charges the narrative by careful use of language. Words like “endless,” “stuck,” “loud,” “stupid,” and “murderous” give the scene specificity and make Anders’ frustration real and felt, even if it’s petty. Likewise, the title itself charges the telling. You can’t title a story “Bullet in the Brain” and then drop the word “murderous” in the first line without raising some alarms. Pop songs have achieved similar effects—look at “Janie’s Got A Gun” by Aerosmith. It matters little in the Wolff story that Anders is ultimately the victim and not the perpetrator of a crime. Wolff escalates the tension and stakes in the story brilliantly, beginning at the level of word choice in that first sentence.

Another thing these examples demonstrate is that the stakes in a story (or song) don’t have to be life and death to be sufficiently high to keep us engaged as an audience. They need only be high in relation to the narrator’s understanding of the world. Hit single after hit single has shown us that a break-up is a serious enough situation to keep us engaged, but what about other scenarios, such as the straight party jam?

This brings us into the orbit of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” and a few examples of other hit weekend anthems should suffice to demonstrate its major shortcomings. Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” is another paean to sloughing off the chains of the everyday, another exhortation to forget all your troubles and get down. But it is, of course, much more dangerous than “Friday.” “I’ve had a little bit too much,” it begins, and the entire first verse is dedicated to showing the risky place the narrator (again, not Gaga) has put herself in: she’s lost her keys, her phone, and she can’t see straight anymore. But, the chorus assures us, it’s “gonna be okay” if she just dances. Like the Clarkson tune, there’s no narrative arc per se, just the back and forth between the desperation of the verses and the giving-in of the chorus. And it works brilliantly.

But maybe Gaga is a stretch here when compared to the relative vanillaness of “Friday.” What about another song dedicated to the joy of the weekend? Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” still gets a lot of play, especially at sporting events, so it’s easy to lose sight of the subtext of the song. Like Black, Jordan sets the scene on the cusp of the weekend: “It’s Friday night, and I feel all right / the party’s here on the West Side.” So far, so innocuous (callout to Los Angeles’ gang-related West Side notwithstanding), and the first verse continues in that vein, up until Jordan notes that “All the gang bangers forgot about the drive-by.” That one line reveals a lot about what goes unsaid in the song. The narrator (again, so we don’t get it twisted with the song’s writers or performers) wants to cut loose and have a good time on Friday night because things are so bad where he’s from.

There’s actually a tapestry of specific detail woven throughout the first verse that establishes the credibility of the narrator in this way: he reaches for a 40, hits the shore because he’s faded, and all the honeys in the street are saying, “Yo, we made it!” The actual authenticity of such language can be called into question (I doubt anyone is mistaking Montell Jordan in this song for Ice Cube in “Today Was A Good Day”), but such debate has little to do with its success as a pop song. The lyrics have the markers of credibility, and this makes the fantasy of the good time all the more satisfying. The songwriters are canny enough not to simply make a party jam, but to lace it with some escapism. A similar undercurrent flows through “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, much as I hate to admit it. That tonight is going to be a good night is only possible because so many other nights have been so shitty. That much is clear in the melancholy that the chorus is shot through with.

Which brings us, at last, to Rebecca Black and “Friday.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with how it begins: “Seven a.m. waking up in the morning / gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs.” That is, almost literally, the same way “Brick” began, although without the benefit of Folds’ ear for sensory detail and the inherent emotional baggage of the day after Christmas. That difference between the two songs is an effective illustration of mistaking the bland for the universal. “Brick” is hauntingly specific, and thus universal, whereas “Friday” strives for common experience but ends up simply common.

Quickly, it gets worse. “Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal” are the next two mandates delivered to us. What could be more mind-numbingly picayune than eating breakfast? One of the absolute musts in fiction (and one of the best ways to create tension in a story) is to make sure that any detail is doing work on multiple levels, that it reveals something about the observer of the detail and advances the story’s plot or its theme. Compare the cereal in “Friday” to that in “Bad Diary Days” by Pedro the Lion, a song about the end of a relationship following the discovery of infidelity: “The breakfast cereal talked more than we did all day long.” The cereal in “Friday” is just sitting there, getting soggy, and doing nothing for the listener.

But it doesn’t stop there. The by-now infamous dilemma presented to the narrator at the end of the first verse practically puts the listener to sleep: “Kicking in the front seat / sitting in the back seat / Gotta make my mind up: / which seat can I take?” Again, it’s not the content of this decision that’s even the problem. Consider the advertising magic that Volkswagen made out of a nighttime drive in a convertible soundtracked by Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” Or the brightly dark teen dystopia of Big Star’s “Back of a Car”: “Sitting in the back of a car / music so loud, I can’t tell a thing / Thinking ‘bout what to say / and I can’t find the lines.” The problem is that “Friday” has failed to convince us that this decision matters at all.

Even the shiniest pop songs need darkness, vice, some threat lurking underneath the veneer if they’re to hold our interest. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” wears that darkness right on its sleeve. Sure, “Hit me baby one more time” can be taken metaphorically, but if you can’t read between the lines, especially when the song is paired with its schoolgirl video, you’re not looking very hard. Even “Dancing Queen” by Abba, which forces an escapist fantasy world down our throats, admits a certain darkness by its very forcefulness.

There are other, more subtle examples of making the boy-girl dynamic thorny in pop. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” tells the timeless tale of a girl being thrown over for another, but Robyn (who wrote the song with Patrik Berger) uses every trick in the book to make us care about the narrator’s plight, right from the first line. “Somebody said you got a new friend,” sings Robyn, and already she’s introduced rumor, the judgment of the crowd, the feeling of being betrayed and having everyone else know it but you. And then the destructive impulse of investigation creeps in: “I know where you at, I bet she’s around / Yeah, I know it’s stupid / I just gotta see it for myself.” The chorus hammers home the isolation and desperation of the narrator even as the beat pounds relentlessly: “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her / I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?” “Dancing On My Own” thus pulls off one of the neatest tricks a pop song can: the dark edge of the lyrics both works with and against the music of the chorus. On the one hand, the music supports and strengthens the chorus because it’s so damn anthemic, but it also evokes the overwhelming feeling of being alone in a club where the music makes it hard to think straight. Robyn herself said as much in an interview with Pitchfork. “They go to experience some kind of emotion,” she said, talking about people going clubbing. “But it’s not always about fun. There’s a destructive side to it.”

There’s no such back and forth or multivalence to “Friday.” If the song has practically bored us to tears with the first verse, the chorus is sure to finish us off. The hook itself (“It’s Friday, Friday / Gotta get down on Friday / Everybody’s looking forward to the weekend”) is merely bland, but it’s clear the song has completely run out of gas by the time we get to “Partying, partying (yeah!) / partying, partying (yeah) / Fun, fun, fun, fun.” Those four repeated “funs” are like the tolling of the bells on your last day, the death of everything interesting about pop writing. We don’t even have to look at something as subtle as tension here to see what’s wrong; it’s as simple as showing not telling. Compare the mountain of specific detail we’re shown in “This Is How We Do It” or “Dancing On My Own” to the dull, insistent telling of “Friday.”

All of which brings us back to the original point: don’t pile on Black for this monstrosity. Pile on Jay and Wilson for thinking that all 13-year-old girls have to offer are vapid platitudes about the weekend. At first, “Friday” seems merely boring and airheaded, a pop throwaway. But when you consider what’s possible within the confines of the pop format, and then take into account the way it came into the world—a boilerplate creation sold for $2,000 to the parents of a teen girl—it turns into something much worse, something lazy and cynical that denies the dizzy possibilities of the pop format generally and the feelgood weekend jam specifically.

* Actually, it’s probably worth demarcating some epistemological ground here, since Kelly Clarkson or Rebecca Black or even Ben Folds as the singer of “Brick” are no more the authors of those songs than Holden Caulfield is the author of Catcher in the Rye. When it comes to discussing a song, the songwriter creates a persona who sings the song, who is, in effect, the narrator of the song and shouldn’t be mistaken for either the person who’s singing the song or the person who wrote the song. This happens whether or not the person who wrote the song is the person who’s singing it. We should always be wary of mistaking narrators for authors.

It’s 12:13, so it can be lunch. My favorite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I’m the boss of play but Ma’s the boss of meals, like she doesn’t let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner in case we’d get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but then I got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma’s wrist can’t manage it.

It is no easy feat to write convincingly in the voice of a child, let alone a child who has only lived in one room, with one person, for all of his five years. It’s not even easy to fully remember what it was like to be a child, though we were all there once. Taking on a “damaged” child is a challenge for any writer, and entering that child’s thought process and imagination takes a great amount of craft, control, and restraint. Emma Donoghue has achieved a remarkable thing with Room’s narrator, Jack, who must face his biggest fears in order to enter our world.

Few have undergone the traumas Jack is subject to, but in some ways we can all relate to his basic psychological qualms. When the novel opens, on Jack’s fifth birthday, he is perfectly content in the 11×11′ Room into which he was born. Everything in Room has a name, gender, place, purpose, and meaningful history. Take Rug: the stain from Jack’s birth is still visible on her surface, a reminder to Jack of his important entry. Ma, at 26, is his only “real” companion (excluding his friends Dora the Explorer, Dylan the Digger, and Spongebob), and she is an intricate part of his sense of self. Together they read the same five books, watch the same TV channels, play the same games, make the same foods, and follow the exact same routine every day. At nine o’clock each night, after Jack goes to bed inside Wardrobe, a mysterious man named Old Nick “beeps” the door’s state-of-the-art combination lock. He “squeaks Bed” over 200 times, and sometimes causes Ma to be “Gone” the next day, when she won’t get out of bed and Jack must take care of himself. Ma provides little to no explanation for who Old Nick actually is, and though he brings food and clothes for “Sundaytreat,” Jack knows he’s never allowed to let Nick see him.

Jack’s confusing yet simple world takes a dramatic turn when Old Nick becomes increasingly angry at Ma and cuts off Room’s power. Little by little, Ma begins to explain things to Jack – things about which she previously lied. She tells him that the “planets” they watch on TV are all real places, and that one time she herself was a little kid too, with parents and a house. Jack, who has never set foot beyond Room and who believes he can send Dora letters by flushing them down the toilet, has a very difficult time grasping the nature of time and reality. It’s only when he sees an airplane through Skylight, Room’s only window, that things begin to sink in. It’s all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the plane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can’t go there because we don’t know the secret code, but it’s real all the same.

Jack’s concept of reality is further shaken when Ma tells him that Old Nick kidnapped her seven years ago, while she was at college. Old Nick is not only her captor, but Jack’s biological father. She explains how she tried to free herself from Room many different ways, but not since Jack was born, out of fear of what Old Nick might do. Now, with Old Nick out of work, Jack getting older, and tensions between Ma and Nick mounting, she decides it’s time to brainstorm a new plan. Ma tells Jack: “I brought you into Room, I didn’t mean to but I did it and I’ve never once been sorry…and tonight I’m going to get you out.”

The escape plan forces Jack to bear the burden of facing Outside for the very first time, and without his Ma. He must rescue himself and his mother through a series of terrifying and disturbing events, which forces the reader to wonder how these traumatic moments will impact him later on. Surely, Donoghue must have been inspired, or at least aware, of such real events as Austria’s Natascha Kampusch, who escaped her captor after being held in a cellar for eight years, or seven-year-old Erica Pratt who freed herself after her abduction in Philadelphia.

Comparisons to real-life events continue when Jack enters the next phase of his existence; that is, after he is placed into the hands of doctors, therapists, reporters, lawyers, and grandparents. The story is a newsworthy sensation, and the media paints Jack as both a modern-day hero and a feral child, focusing on his long hair, aversion to shoes, and the fact that he can’t properly walk down stairs. One need only to think of Genie, the girl who was tied to a potty-chair by her deranged father. When discovered, Genie had the appearance of a seven-year-old, weighing just 59 pounds, even though she was 13; most shocking of all, she could not speak and could hardly even walk.

The adults in Jack’s new world, continually surprised by his level of intelligence and articulation, expect Jack to be mentally or physically disabled. Donoghue provides realistic commentary on a society obsessed with documenting and emphasizing tragedy. Adults ask Jack for his autograph, unauthorized photos end up on the Internet, and he’s nicknamed “Bonsai Boy” by the press. When Ma, whose real name Jack never acknowledges, is interviewed, the reporter announces that she still breastfeeds Jack. Ma smartly responds: “In all of this, that’s the shocking detail?”

What’s most unnerving and also endearing about Room is Jack’s inner psychosis, and how his perception of the world, and his place within, is so rapidly in flux.  This is perhaps Room’s most relatable aspect: no matter the situation, all children undergo separation anxiety from their parents, and all must come to the realization that they are individuals capable of making decisions and eventually looking after themselves. Jack often deals with scary things by repeatedly counting his teeth, a common method of distraction and a means to make order out of a world that makes no sense. As children, we have little to no control over where and how we live, and who and what we are exposed to; Jack’s story allows readers to reflect on such changes in their own lives and how they coped. The real world will naturally change Jack, and all of us, but so too can we all change the world.

Historians have widely held that knowledge of the past is essential for those seeking progress in the present. Filmmaker Dave Travis has long agreed. The Californian has documented the West Coast punk scene since his teenage years, recording live shows and shooting early videos like Black Flag’s “Slip It In.” Throwing generator parties in the Santa Monica mountains and playing in the early 1980s LA punk band Permanent Waves made it easy to accumulate hundreds of hours of footage of seminal live shows from the likes of The Descendents, MDC, and Black Flag. Almost 30 years later, Travis has taken classic live footage and interviews with Redd Kross, The Meat Puppets, Twisted Roots, and The Minutemen (who also give the documentary its title) and compiled A History Lesson.

Subtitled Part 1: Punk Rock In Los Angeles in 1984, if A History Lesson reinforces anything, it is that 1984 was quite a year for punk rock, despite (or perhaps owing to) the Orwellian connotations of the Reagan era. Classic footage abounds with The Minutemen clips alone worth the price of admission. A History Lesson captures six live songs from the pride of Pedro, paired with typically wonderful Watt footage post-Boon’s death. By the level of jowlage Watt is sporting and his lack of a beard, I’m going to argue the interviews are from 1995 or 1996. The Redd Kross and later-period Meat Puppets interviews seem to be more recent, from the 21st century, but I may be wrong.

Whether period or present-day, great video abounds in A History Lesson. Being at ground zero with a makeshift Steadicam-like VHS/belt apparatus allowed Travis to compile a slew of rare footage, unlikely to be seen anywhere else. Watching Boon dance a fat man’s jig during tracks like “The Big Foist” should put a smile on the face of any punk worth his salt. Paired with latter day anecdotes from the bassist, including a great story about pulling over at a library mid-tour to settle one of the infamous Watt/Boon history debates, you will laugh out loud. Those tuning in for The Meat Puppets live footage will enjoy material falling between their first and second records, where the lysergic and Grateful Dead leanings start to trump the Bros. Kirkwood’s thrashier roots. Both brothers weigh in with recollections, and included are three songs from a 1984 Pasadena gig featuring an early appearance of the eventual Nirvana favorite “Ring Of Fire.”

Travis was perhaps closest personally to Redd Kross, touring with them for a prolonged stretch after finishing high school. Redd Kross broke from punk rock conventions of the day, yet still played a seminal role in LA’s scene. Sporting a contrarian nature and more than candid about their desire to be rock stars, Kross were as polarizing as Black Flag. Whether they were successful in attaining stardom is arguable, but they maintain a unique perspective on the mid-1980s LA scene, including a respectful but less than rhapsodic take on Black Flag, breaking from conventional recollections of the band. The live material captures Redd Kross’ only gig with ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson in its ranks (who had herself replaced ex-Flag singer/guitarist Dez Cadena upon his departure to join Twisted Roots). Peterson joined her brother in Kross’ ranks, making for double sets of siblings in their line-up.

Nothing is addressed explicitly about the brother factor, but it speaks volumes about the level of camaraderie LA bands enjoyed. Redd Kross and The Meat Puppets sported actual blood ties, while Watt and Boon may as well have been born brothers. Twisted Roots featured Paul Roessler and his sister Kira (herself Mike Watt’s ex-wife), along with Dez Cadena, and then recent ex-Germ Pat Smear. Twisted Roots footage is practically non-existent, so punk historians would do well to search out the material here. It captures three songs from one of the handful of shows the band did before imploding/morphing into DC3.

Whether your interest in the 1980s LA scene is slavish or cursory, punk historians and casual fans of the genre can take much away from A History Lesson. The VHS source material can be suspect at times, and the curious tendency Travis has for replacing heads of interviewees with footage from later interviews is something I would have advised against, but this history lesson is one you would do well to be doomed to repeat.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked. This is one of those.

It’s just not fair for a band this old to sound this exuberant. Singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan is 45, and sure, he’s not as old as the men of Wire, but Wire had the sense to treat their legacy with a measure of gravitas. Not so for Superchunk, who kick off their don’t-call-it-a-comeback-non-reunion album Majesty Shredding with the rambunctious “Digging for Something.” It’s positively bracing, boiling over with “woo-hoo”s, enough to make listeners who missed out on Superchunk in the past wonder what the hell was going on to pull attention from this charmingly fuzzy North Carolina quartet. Oh right, listening to Soundgarden and confusing Superchunk with Supertramp.

Drawn with a slightly finer point than Pavement, but with a little more pressure, Superchunk is best known for being the band that built Merge Records. When your first well-known song’s called “Slack Motherfucker,” you’re not bound to get loads of radio play. At first, the ensemble’s melodicism was buried under slabs of fuzz. Years of excavation, though, have unearthed it for Majesty Shredding. Songs like “Slow Drip” and “Crossed Wires” boast choruses with a familiar feeling, somehow both shiny as a new penny and worn-in like a good pair of jeans. Meanwhile, subtle stylistic flourishes like “Fractures In Plaster” and its attendant strings keep songs from being guitar-bass-drums pop primping.

The real test for an album like this – one that’s charming, winning, and made up of catchy tunes – is how often listeners discover a new favorite song. By this metric, Majesty Shredding is LeBron Jamesian. At first, “Digging for Something” is the clear standout, but “Crossed Wires” quickly begins to fight its way through with an obsessively repetitive chorus. Then quieter pleasures from “Rosemarie” and “Fractures In Plaster” make their case for listeners’ attention. By the time we’ve fallen in love with “Learned to Surf,” we’ve probably come all the way back around to thinking that no, “Digging for Something” is really the killer jam here. That’s when it starts all over again, realizing Superchunk should have been a favorite all along – and also that they’re in no way affiliated with Supertramp.